Sunday, November 2, 2008

Arcosanti - Behind the Scenes

A group of us went on a drive in the Cadwac yesterday. Destination: Arcosanti. This is an experimental urban design project started in 1970 by Italian architect Paolo Soleri. Soleri is a visionary architect. He has designed entire cities (none of them built) with the idea to concentrate human activities in massive structures which would provide more area for nature and agriculture.

Arcosanti currently takes up about 10 acres of an 860 acre site in the high desert of central Arizona. The plan was to build a concentrated urban community as an alternative to suburban sprawl. When complete, Arcosanti is supposed to house 3000 to 5000 residents. It's only about 5 percent complete and progress has slowed to a crawl in recent years due to lack of funding. Arcosanti manages to maintain itself at a minimal level by offering tours, selling ceramic and bronze bells, and hosting performance events. They also hold regular five-week intensive Arcology workshops where you get to live and work at the site while learning. Arcology is a word Soleri made up to describe the merging of architecture and ecology.

Thanks to our friend, Cabiria, we got a special tour of the back sides of the buildings, the insides of storage rooms, construction zones, and behind the scenes at the amphitheater. Maggie, another resident, gave us a special agricultural tour of the greenhouses, gardens, fields, chicken coops, and the funky experimental structures built over the years by the residents. We had a picnic down in camp and were joined by many of the residents who weren't working. The weather was beautiful and we had a wonderful and relaxing visit to a unique and interesting place.

There are several residents who live in the completed structures as well as in an area called "camp" down below the main site. Camp is an earthy, more organically grown area that was where everyone lived when building began on the bluff up above. Camp has fields, gardens, greenhouses, and various cubical residences made out of concrete slabs. There are also some nice indoor and outdoor gathering spaces.

Soleri's designs are sculpturally beautiful and the concept of combining ecology and architecture is a great idea. One of the potential problems I see is that there are a lot of people, maybe most people, who would not enjoy living in identical housing units crammed tightly together in huge multi-story structures. I believe human desires for intimate contact with nature, personal control over the appearance of their dwellings, and the desire for privacy and outdoor living spaces need more consideration when designing residential structures. For example, the feeling in "camp" is more vital and human than the feeling in the structures of Arcosanti which have a commercial feel to them.

Soleri is 89 years old. Who knows what will happen to the place when he is gone. It would be nice if it could be opened up for more creative participation and attract the funding needed to complete it in some form. For now, we will enjoy visiting an interesting place and fun people.

See more photos of our visit.

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